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Stop building community sports facilities - build social, active spaces instead

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

''We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,' said Churchill. As he saw it, the Westminster environment characterised by opposing benches was responsible for the adversarial game of two-party politics that followed.

If the Houses of parliament’s design promotes competition rather than collaboration; how might we ensure our community-level facilities prioritise participation rather than performance?

A common critique of my recent article 'Benches not Fences' was that fences stop the football or basketball running away. Perhaps, but maybe they shape a more close-controlled game? I’d love to see research that tests this.

A player having to adjust their play, or fetch their ball may hinder performance, but a play space that feels unsafe, unwelcoming or can be easily dominated by one small group hinders participation. In shaping our community facilities, which is more important?

Perhaps, the choice need not be that binary, and indeed the provocation of benches, not fences was as much a call for us to approach the design of informal sports facilities by prioritising social, accessible, flexible places where people are welcome and activity is enabled rather than a sport first solution.

A multi-use games area. A 3on3 basketball court with football goals at either end. Opposite the basketball net is carious informal seating and different leveled flooring and bars to support parkour practice
This court in Brondby, Denmark provides sociability through informal seating, flexibility as that seating is also designed for parkour and social accessibility in the lack of fences.

Stepping indoors for a moment, Sport England sport hall design guidance “aim[s] to… Encourage well designed sports facilities that meet the needs of sports and are a pleasure to use.” They further dictate that design should relate to the level of play, with the more space required “for safety zones and other margins around the playing area.” It even goes as far to specify that for “community use [there is] no specific need for…spectator accommodation. In these briefings the only sporting design that identifies a need of ‘sitting out’ is a roller-skating rink.

Resource implications aside, I’d argue that if we approach designing active facilities from a position of increasing participation – particularly among those most excluded or disengaged – that a community facility requires the most additional space around the playing area.

When GAME – a street sport NGO used to delivering in communities – built its first indoor accommodation, they asked their young participants what they wanted in a facility. They were expecting demands that would – in the words of Sport England – meet the needs of the sport – instead their questions were returned, "What's going to be happening in the corners? Could there be place to grafitti in one corner, could we have a couch, and a place to buy a soda?"

A large informal seating/steps area overlooking a basketball court in a converted industrial building
GAME's Streetmekkas convert unused industrial buildings into social sporting spaces. This was the concept design for Viborg by Effekt.

‘Legitimate peripheral participation’ is an academic theory that discusses how newcomers to an activity or community become members of that community initially by participating in simple and low-risk tasks. LOA – a Danish foundation supporting innovation in facilities for sport and recreation – has translated this into creating space for socialising on the sidelines, meeting and waiting for friends, watching practice or a game, not opening the sports hall doors, or stepping through the gap in the fence and being thrown straight on to the court.

In the past, I’ve tried to simplify this as ‘Invitations to sit & watch’.

A more legitimate call for fencing may be the safety of passers-by, I’ve also seen evidence of women and girls being put off as park users because of open goal mouths near footpaths.

Very few elite sports are played behind a high fence, the benches come first, then the outer wall. When they are introduced, the reason is usually that a safety concern outweighs the desire for a closer connection between those watching and playing the game.

Is it possible to come up with a design for a ‘ball court’ that is open, inviting (and escapable) while also containing the action where it is designed to be?

Here’s my first scribble… I'll have a go at a vision board next, but benches before fences?

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